Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 150

Aslan Abashidze, chairman of the Ajar Autonomous Republic’s Supreme Soviet, harbors two contradictory ambitions: to maximize Ajaria’s autonomy up to virtual independence from Tbilisi and, at the same time, to become president of Georgia. Abashidze maintains close relations with both the Russian military and nationalist political circles in Russia. He tried to forestall the withdrawal of Russian border troops from Ajaria, and provides an exceptionally friendly environment for the Russian army and naval units which are based in his republic. In the run-up to Georgia’s parliamentary and presidential elections, Abashidze and his party, the Revival Union, are catalyzing the formation of an electoral coalition opposed to the Western-oriented government in Tbilisi.

On July 11 in Ajaria’s capital Batumi, Abashidze hosted the founding conference of an all-Georgian opposition bloc which aims to defeat President Eduard Shevardnadze and his Union of Citizens of Georgia (UCG) in the upcoming elections (see the Monitor, July 14). On July 18, a follow-up conference in Batumi designated Abashidze as leader of the multiparty opposition bloc and created a youth wing of that bloc. The youth wing, meeting in Batumi on July 30, nominated Abashidze to run for president of Georgia on behalf of the united opposition. Socialist leader Vahtang Rcheulishvili, whose party is the strongest in the opposition bloc, endorsed Abashidze’s presidential candidacy. Abashidze, for his part, alleged that UCG leaders had told him personally that the central government would, if necessary, use military force to win the elections and stay in power. On August 2, Abashidze charged that two days earlier Georgian security services had mounted an armed incursion into Ajaria, killing and wounding an unspecified number of locals. This charge, too, remains unsubstantiated and seems imaginary. It does, however, dovetail with recent attempts to suggest that the situation in Ajaria may be developing along lines similar to Abkhazia.

Indeed on July 20, Rcheulishvili declared in the Georgian parliament that the central government’s policy toward Ajaria today resembles that toward Abkhazia just before the outbreak of the war, and that the people of Ajaria expect to be attacked by Georgian forces. Parliament Chairman Zurab Zhvania responded by terming Rcheulishvili an “agent provocateur in full-time employment”–an allusion to the Socialist leader’s Russian orientation. On July 30, Abashidze came out in support of Abkhazia’s recent decision to hold a presidential election this coming October. The central Georgian government had already branded the Abkhaz decision as unlawful, and the effects of any such exercise as null and void. But Abashidze described the Abkhaz decision as justified, and held the “current regime in Tbilisi” responsible for the Abkhaz secession. On similar grounds, United Communist Party leader Panteleimon Giorgadze–whose party, though it is not a component, supports the opposition bloc–also expressed support for the Abkhaz presidential election.

Economic considerations play their role in Abashidze’s increasing defiance of Tbilisi. The Ajar leadership aims to retain the lion’s share of customs revenue in the autonomous republic, withholding that revenue from the central government. It seeks, in particular, full control over the lucrative import-export trade in the Black Sea port of Batumi and across the Ajar sector of the Georgian-Turkish border. With that goal in mind, Abashidze invokes the 1921 Kars treaty between Soviet Russia and Turkey, a document which entitled Turkish ships and goods to certain privileges on the present territory of Ajaria. Tbilisi, however, points out in response that under international law Ajaria is not an entity and therefore has no authority to implement international treaties unilaterally. Turkey, for its part, has distanced itself from Abashidze’s ideas.

A further dispute centers on the Batumi-based Georgian Maritime Shipping Company. The company went bankrupt under Ajar management, but Tbilisi has inherited substantial liabilities. Georgia’s prosecutor general, investigating the affair, has unveiled some evidence of embezzlement by Ajar leaders. Abashidze retorts that the investigation constitutes a ploy against him personally and against Ajaria’s autonomy (Iprinda, July 22, 24; Prime-News, July 18, 20-21, 25-26, 30, August 2-3; Rezonansi, July 30; Radio Tbilisi, July 22, August 1-2).

The overall picture of Tbilisi-Ajaria relations is not uniformly bleak. On July 17, for example, Abashidze addressed the first graduating class of Georgian naval cadets in Batumi and welcomed a lucrative agreement between the Batumi naval shipyard and the Georgian coastal guard. Indeed, Tbilisi-Ajaria relations sometimes depend on Ajaria’s share in the income–whether lawful or illicit–from Georgia’s external trade, budgetary funds and control of state assets. The Ajar leadership may yet settle for an advantageous economic deal in return for dropping political designs on Tbilisi. Turkey, for its part, is well placed and willing to exercise a restraining influence on the Ajar leadership. Abashidze is known for posturing, erratic statements and–in recent years–some widely noticed lapses into emotional instability. In this situation, attempts in Moscow to play an “Ajar card” against Shevardnadze–would be especially irresponsible. The probability that Moscow planners consider such a course also reflects Moscow’s loss of all effective cards in Georgia proper.

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at pubs@jamestown.org, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions